Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lakers overcome distraction, become contender


It was a Christmas Day Miracle, really.

There were the mighty, high-flying, running-and-gunning Phoenix Suns, the lock this season to win the Western Conference's Pacific Division and roll into the playoffs as one of the top few seeds.

But they weren't the miracle. The miracle workers were the guys in yellow jerseys.

There was Kobe Bryant, the subject of trade speculation for the past eight months. In May, he said he wanted to be traded — for sure — then recanted ... then said he wanted out again.

Leading up to the season, all the talk in Laker Land revolved around No. 24 leaving. Chicago? New York? He was bound for the East Coast.

The discussion continued into the regular season, but somehow the Lakers played through it. While the Chicago Bulls couldn't overcome the Kobe Talk to play half-decent basketball, the Lakers managed to play .500 ball.

And Bryant showed why he's the NBA's best talent, hearing all the whispers in one ear and coach Phil Jackson in the other. On opening night, there he was — almost leading the Lakers back from a 12-point hole in the final minute, 36 seconds.

Say what you want about Bryant's arrogance, his selfishness at times, but you can't say he ever gives up in a game. He didn't on that night, and he hasn't since then.

And while a month and a half ago, I thought the Lakers with Kobe needed another marquee player — such as Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal — to make a serious run in the mighty West, I don't think so anymore. This team, with its current makeup, is capable of challenging the Suns, the Mavericks, the Jazz ... and maybe even the Spurs (OK, probably not the Spurs, but neither can the aforementioned squads).

The main reason: the play of Andrew Bynum, the 20-year-old kid who has grown thick skin and ignored all the clamors by L.A. fans — and the media — that he needs to be traded for a big-name, proven veteran.

On Christmas, the 7-footer was at his best, skying for a slew of easy alley-oops, causing the Suns to play a bigger, slower lineup than usual — and then out-muscling those guys, including Amare Stoudemire, for 12 rebounds. He finished with a career-high 28 points, the dozen boards, four assists and two blocked shots.

And after the Lakers' 122-115 win, don't look now, but ... but ... but a certain team in gold uniforms sits just a game back of the mighty Suns.

And maybe — just maybe — the trade talk has died down for now.

With Bynum averaging 12.5 points, 10.1 boards and 2.1 blocks a game. With Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar anchoring the point guard position, a veteran leading a youngster who will eventually steal all his minutes. With Lamar Odom and Bynum holding strong in the post. With high-flyer Trevor Ariza and Luke Walton — when he returns from injury — providing a variety of skills at the small-forward position. ... these Lakers, at 18-10 and on a three-game winning streak, look like contenders.

Wait — I forgot to mention one player: um, Kobe Bryant?

That's right. When one can talk about the Lakers without mentioning the longest-tenured player in the NBA, you know there's a little talent around him.

In the fourth quarter Tuesday, it was Kobe Time. Bryant knocked down an array of fall-away jumpers from all over the court to score 12 of his game-high 38. He was the center of the show. The player whom kids are trying to emulate on playgrounds all over L.A. today.

But he's no longer the only show in town, folks. Bynum, Odom, Ariza, Fisher...

Learn the names, kids. Because if this keeps up, they'll be making just as much noise as their celebrated teammate well into the spring.


J-bo said...

Truly bizarre how the Lakers are playing their best ball in years amidst all the trade talk and Kobe drama. Give credit to the supporting cast for stepping up during what must have been a frustrating and uncertain offseason.

Sportsattitude said...

The Lakers have been amazing so far. Bryant has been a true pro, keeping an even keel and making the best of what talent they have. Who would have thought back in the summer Phil Jackson would already have committed to staying around awhile longer and there remains a possibility Kobe might also? Truly amazing.

Tyler Hampton said...

I can't belive the turnaround this team has gone through. First they are what some might consider a dynasty with Shaq, then they have a falling out and Kobe is left to fend for himself with a struggling team. Now this is happening? It's remarkable that a team of such little talent (supposedly) can make such a great run at the playoffs.